Over a decade ago, online eyewear was an intransparent and high-margined niche, but Brille24 battled this problem with customer empowerment. In this interview, Brille24‘s Thorsten Ahlers tells how user-centricity helped the company reach both bargain hunters and affluent customers, and build an international business.
You work as the Head of Marketing at Brille24 – on online platform for shopping eyewear. How did your story at Brille24 start?
Thorsten Ahlers, Brille24.de: I’ve started in 2014 as the Head of Online Marketing with a clear focus on performance marketing. In 2015 more and more classical marketing tasks like TV and print advertising or CRM became more relevant for Brille24’s business.
As a consequence, my department grew to a full-service marketing department with two teams: data- and KPI-driven performance marketing and a customer-driven campaign team for online and offline marketing.
And how did Brille24 itself start? Where did the idea to sell glasses online come from? Who saw the opportunity in it – and when did it happen?
The idea was born in 2007. The founders of Brille24 saw a big opportunity to succeed in the completely intransparent and high-margined eyewear market.
Our vision is “customer empowerment” in the optical business with fair prices at surprisingly high quality and an easy-to-understand shopping experience.
How many customers do you have in your home market? How many Germans buy glasses on Brille24, say, daily or monthly?
The Brille24 group already sold over 2 million glasses to more than 1 million customers.
In 2017 we had more than 350,000 customers buying glasses, sunglasses or contact lenses. With our acquisition of Lensspirit – a specialised retailer for contact lenses – in the beginning of this year and strong demand in 2018 we see massive growth this year.
Is there any specific trend – or difference – between buying sunglasses and corrective sunglasses online?
Sunglasses without vision correction are a classical retail product with strong focus on pricing. The same with contact lenses, but with a better chance on cross-selling with corrective glasses.
Our core business is the optical market. Here we find quite often the first touchpoint with a new customer by selling corrective sunglasses.
After being quite satisfied with their new sunglasses, those customers tend to buy their correction glasses at Brille24. They see and feel the high quality of a seasonal product like sunglasses and in the next step trust us by buying their every-day glasses online.
A trend for Brille24 is that we reach more fashion-oriented user and not only bargain hunters. This is why, we sponsor fashion events like the Berlin Fashion Week and cooperate with designers like Rebekka Ruetz or Irene Luft.
How is the process of buying glasses online better or more convenient than doing it in a brick and mortar optical store?
Online is more convenient and more transparent. You are in full control of your decisions and are not forced to buy irrelevant features only because the optician told you so.
A local optician is always limited in the number of frames in his shop while you are able to select your right frame through a variety of more than 3,000 frames at Brille24. With good user experience and onsite personalisation it is definitely more fun.
How do you overcome the problem with picking the right eyewear frames? Normally, customers of a brick and mortar optical store can try them on and decide which ones fit them best. But how to do it online?
We use onsite campaigns and recommendations to lead the customer to the right section or product.
Features like an Q&A-tool to select the best-fitting frames or a photo-try-on help in the decision process.
But helping the user in the decision process is one of our key future projects: from a complete realistic virtual-try-on to using Deep Learning in our recommendation engine we simplify the way of buying glasses.
Apart from Germany, Brille24 is present on ten European markets. In each case, your brand’s name is customised to the local language. What is the reason for this? Why didn’t you decide to focus on one brand name everywhere?
It’s always easy to understand. From Portugal’s Optica24.pt to Slovakia’s Opti24.sk: everyone in Europe understands our offer in just a second.
How is the company doing on these markets? Are the sales figures and growth comparable to your position in Germany?
Germany is our core market. But we see big growth in our Central-Eastern-European markets, as people from those countries are moving more and more to e-commerce.
In the Western countries we are growing in Belgium and the Netherlands.
How do you rank among your competitors? What do you do to maintain competitive advantage?
E-commerce with vision correction is still a niche market.
In Germany, only 5% of all frames are sold online. But the market is huge: nearly 60% of the people need correction. Therefore, our main competitors are the big offline retailers like Fielmann. In the past they had the first access to the user with the obligatory vision examination.
But we already have the answer: we are cooperating with local opticians for services like measuring the vision values or frame adjustment. And those partner opticians also sell our Brille24-portfolio offline on commission.
We also invest a lot into research on the digital eye exam. We are partnering with the University of Oldenburg to find the first solution. This will be the disruptive element in the whole optical industry.
You have extensive experience in SEA, SEO, Affiliate Marketing, Display Marketing, Real Time Advertising, Retargeting, Conversion Rate Optimization, E-Commerce Strategy and many other aspects of Online Marketing in a range of online businesses. Each of these topic is difficult in itself. How did you gather all this diverse knowledge? Practice makes perfect?
I’m an online marketing native. I set up my first Google campaign in 2004 and was always eager to learn with new marketing channels.
I’ve never worked in a complete specialised area and therefore became a so-called t-shaped marketing guy. Always being curious helps in digital marketing.
What are your favourite sources of industry knowledge on Online Marketing? Are these any particular websites, industry blogs or online courses?
I often find new blogs or magazines when I start to learn new things. And each marketing channel has some real good knowledge resources like moz.com or the content from Bloofusion in the Google world.
My most beloved marketing news is from The Hustle – great content every day.
What do you perceive as fundamental to running a successful ecommerce business? If you were to name a couple of ultimate dos and don’ts for any ecommerce venture, what would these be?
Look at you KPIs – but try new channels with a good relation of costs to attention. Always find out what drives your customers. Implement this knowledge in your marketing strategy and you’ll get good traffic at reasonable costs and the right message to convert your users.
And be patient: most things don’t work out in the first minute. Is it that easy? Not really 😉
n Ahlers is the Head of Marketing at Brille24, the leading online optician in Germany. He brings over 10 years Marketing and E-Commerce experience from EWE, Reichelt Elektronik and Pilot Hamburg. His main objective: integrated marketing campaigns from the first point of contact until the conversion to CRM.
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